The Sentinel melds historical fiction and literary fiction to give readers an emotional and atmospheric visit to the past. I was beguiled by the story of Miss Kathleen Devine as she dramatically changes her privileged life in Melbourne, for the isolated world of a lighthouse outpost in Victoria, Australia.
Set in the 1800’s, we accompany Miss Devine to the stark yet beautiful lighthouse post, named the Sentinel. She is to be the new Head Teacher for the children of the lighthouse workers. Three families live on the lighthouse grounds. Their world is the sea, the sky, the weather and the all-consuming task of manning the lighthouse. Miss Devine, as well as each family, bring their own hopes, and plans, and each has left troubles and worries in their previous world. Can they forge a community?
The author, Jacqueline Hodder, gifts us with the beauty, the isolation, and the sense of duty that pervades the world of the Sentinel. The lighthouse is vital to the safety of the passing ships. But what of the safety and well-being of the people at the rugged outpost? Written like a poem or a prayer, we see the inner world of Miss Devine as she tries to overcome her past and find her purpose.
The changeable and dramatic weather and the soaring purpose of the lighthouse are well-drawn symbols in this interesting look at a different time and world. The story seems to accurately capture the history and times of the past. While the seafaring world may have changed, the pain and dreams of people have not. I found this to be a readable and enjoyable story and I recommend it to you. Thanks to the author for a review copy. This is my honest review.
Wildness and isolation in fiction are irresistible keynotes for the drama of human stories. Lighthouse stories are a small and interesting sub-genre in fiction. The themes of wilderness, loss, and individuals struggling with inner demons or traumatic pasts cluster round them. The wildness and isolation of nature is the melodic accompaniment to the human dramas that are played out.
In The Sentinel by Jacqueline Hodder (Blue Wren Press, 2020) we have all these themes and more. It would be easy for the story to fall into cliché, but the author avoids this trap. An intricate and well-constructed plot kept me turning the pages, suspending my disbelief over some of the apparent contradictions and sometimes unlikely turns of event and character. In parts, I had my editor’s hat on, but as I got further into the story, the more it held me, and I put my quibbles aside.
In the early nineteenth century, a young woman takes a position as schoolteacher at a lighthouse settlement off the Victorian coastline. Three families live there — the Head Lightkeeper and his wife, and two assistants, each with a brood of children. Kathleen Devine takes on the formidable task of taming and teaching the children with a will, and soon has the twelve children working well at their different levels. She has inner struggles, which are reflected in her memories of betrayal by a lover, and outer struggles with the conflicts that are generated between the families, escalating to a disastrous night in the middle of a storm, when the eldest daughter of one of the keepers goes missing. The backdrop to all this is the weather, more often stormy than calm, and the lighthouse, whose purpose as a sentinel and saviour of ships and people at sea is the reason why they are all there. The Sentinel becomes, for Kathleen, a symbol of steadiness and safety. But it cannot save people from themselves.
A central plot pivot in the story is the friendship that develops between the fierce, strict Head Lightkeeper and the sixteen-year-old daughter of one of the keepers. The cliché of sexual transgression is resisted, and the conflict is between the misinterpretations, jealousy, and judgements of other adults, and the actual nature of the relationship, which is one of an older man teaching a young girl the intricacies and mysteries of maintaining the workings of the lighthouse, while she revels in learning these skills and helps him to keep the light shining and turning throughout the nights and seasons of the year. This is the early nineteenth century, and such an unequal relationship then was bound to be judged. It crosses the boundaries of class, age and gender.
How much has changed? It seems to me it would still be misjudged, especially in the crucible of a cloistered, isolated, small community. So, we have an age-old conflict between people attempting to live lives that are good and useful and getting caught in the imperfect moral codes of society, that tend to judge by appearances.
There is much beauty and drama in this well-researched historical fiction, and I recommend it to readers. Thank you, Jacqui, for the review copy.
Kathleen Divine has escaped the confines of Melbourne and a disastrous relationship to take up residence near an isolated lighthouse as the head teacher. Everyone is close in many ways, yet at the same time, they are isolated and distanced from each other as tensions rise and threaten to tear the tiny community apart. Kathleen tries to take Isabella under her wing, yet Isabella is drawn into a friendship with Head Lightkeeper, Mr Johannsson – and the peace begins to shake and quiver, threatening to destroy everyone.
Jacqueline approached me during the lockdowns and restrictions to read and review this – and I have finally managed to get there as things begin to slow down a little, and I am slowly getting on top of all the reading and reviewing I have been trying to do in this very strange year for everyone in so many ways. It is the kind of book that meanders a little, weaving the details of the lives of those living near the Sentinel lighthouse into the narrative, as seen through the eyes of Kathleen.
Each character has their own secrets, their own story – and much is hidden from the reader, so slowly peeling back the layers reveals some of who they are and reveals it as the story calls for it. The main crux of the story is Isabella, and her search for a place to belong. She’s not allowed to go to school and has to help at home. Yet Isabella longs for more and when she begins to befriend Mrs Dawson, and then Mr Johannsson, the story picks up and swirls with intrigue and worry from those who surround Isabella, whilst some concerns are dismissed.
The slow-moving nature of this story allowed for things to unfold as needed, though the action truly ramped up in the final chapters as tragedy struck the island, and everyone’s lives would be changed forever – and nobody would ever see things the same way again or be the same again. They were all irrevocably changed by the events of the story and the way each character reacted to what was happening and each other. It captures the essence of a very small pre-Federation community, and what isolation can do to people – and how they react in their own ways.
The Sentinel revolves around tensions that are exacerbated by isolation and presented with a dark and gothic feel – as though the island and lighthouse are always shrouded in some kind of darkness, or an impending storm – which acts as a catalyst for some of the events and foreshadows what is to potentially come. It is one that I did enjoy, and think it will definitely find its audience out there in the wider world, as it captures a small slice of what nineteenth century was like for one isolated community, and what happens when tragedy wreaks havoc on the people who are part of the tragedy. In a year when so many of us were isolated in some way, the feelings of isolation were strong – and you could sense and feel just how the characters were feeling, and how the isolation affected them. In some ways, it was different for us – we could still connect with loved ones in some way, but the feeling of never-ending loneliness is the same in any time period – no matter how one is able to connect. Jacqueline Hodder captured all these elements
A great book for lovers of historical fiction.